Early in 2012, during Mormon candidate Mitt Romney’s run for the Republican nomination for president, Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, author of The Universe Bends Toward Justice, published a piece in the Huffington Post on blacks and the Mormon priesthood. The fact that this topic came up during a presidential campaign demonstrates the gravity of the issue that many Mormons potentially face on a regular basis, begging the question, “is your church racist?” Nothing quite stings as hearing that question when one is unprepared to offer an intelligent response. The kind of material to respond accurately simply does not make it into Sunday school discussions or lesson manuals. The short answer is, no, the church is not racist, but I can see how one might come to the conclusion based on selective readings.
Hendricks highlighted four specific verses from the Book of Mormon in order to make his case that Mitt Romney had some explaining to do in regards to how his faith might direct his policies, especially in regards to the black community. Following the verses, Hendricks preceded to explain them in the context of the priesthood ban for those of African descent in the LDS Church. While most non-Mormon readers probably observed this negative spin on the Mormon Church and made up their minds that Mitt Romney’s faith was troubling, Mormons were left to pick up the pieces on the spin that was just dropped on them; some simply left the church.
Below, I break down each of the four troubling scriptures Hendricks used to establish his argument. What you will find is these choice verses, used with the intention of perpetuating the modern social construct of racism, is that they do not fit as neatly as Hendricks supposed.
1) Dark skin as a mark of distinction
The first of the three troublesome Book of Mormon verses comes from 2 Nephi 5:21, specifically that the antagonists in the Book of Mormon narrative, the Lamanites – named after Laman, one of the family members who sailed from the Old World to the New World – were cursed for their rebellion and were they whom the Lord God caused a skin of blackness to come upon. Right off the bat, one can see that this needs no further explanation. This screams racism! However, allow me to highlight the surrounding context. In the previous verse (v. 20) says:
“…Inasmuch as they will not hearken unto thy words they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. And behold, they were cut off from his presence.”
The emphasis here is that Laman and his band decided they wanted nothing to do with God. Their consequence meant separation from His presence, which can mean many things: no priesthood, life without the gifts of the spirit, and a lack of scriptural knowledge to pass down to their descendants, etc. Fine, what about this skin of blackness then? The curse came as a result of their iniquity, sin, or rebellion from God. The curse meant that they had been separated from God, and in order “that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them” (v.21). Why change their skin? And does this mean God does not like people with darker skin? Finally, did this justify racism, or did God still expect the Nephites to love the Lamanites?
It says that the Lamanites had previously been “white and delightsome,” which if you know anything about Israeli or Middle Eastern people, they are not white like Anglos – Joseph Smith (who translated the Book of Mormon) being an Anglo, or Gentile. In other words, the Lamanites originally came from a lineage of faithful and God-fearing Israelis. White symbolically represented faithfulness and black, or dark, meant rebellion in the Book of Mormon. In addition, the Book of Mormon also referred to a literal skin, or physical change. If black verses white skin color was intended to be a gauge for one race’s superiority or inferiority in the context of the Book of Mormon, it might properly fit into the modern social construct of racism, and Mormons have a problem. If it is something that does not fit into this social construct, then perhaps, there is redemption for the Book of Mormon and for those struggling with this.
Further complicating the Book of Mormon’s description of these darker skinned people is in verse 22, which says, the Lamanites will become a loathsome people. Why loathsome? Are we meant to think that a mere change of skin leads to one’s loathsomeness? Not quite, rather, their detestable nature is due to their outright disregard to God’s laws. In the same verse it says that they will remain loathsome on their own accord, “save they shall repent of their iniquities.” Remove the issue of skin color and what we see is true of any who disobey God, so what was the purpose of emphasizing skin change?
Not be so repetitive, but it is clear at the beginning of the Book of Mormon that this is a small family from the same Israeli lineage. The family disbanded in the New World, going their separate ways, one towards God and the others following the ways of the world. Consistent with the Bible is that God’s people have always been commanded to avoid marrying outside of the covenant people. So something had to come about to distinguish the people. God is also known to be the creator of the seasons, of the variety seen in animal life, and the diversity we seen in human biology. This happened with the confounding of the languages at the Tower of Babel just before the story Abraham in the Old Testament. What the Book of Mormon is simply stating is that God distinguished the Nephites and Lamanites for his own purposes. No where once does the record indicate that God hates people of a different color. For all practical purposes, God could have gone the other way and made them more Anglo than Israeli looking, having a pale skin change, or with red hair and freckles. Remember, the Nephites were not “white” in the same way U.S. southern slave owners or the proprietors’s of ‘white-only’ coffee shop were white.
2) Color as symbolism, not a tool to justify hate
The second scripture Hendricks highlighted was 1 Nephi 12:23. Chronologically this recording comes before the previous scriptures just described, but what this chapter gives us is a general overview and prediction of the Lamanite people and the role they will play in the Book of Mormon narrative, all given in a vision by the more righteous brother, Nephi.
Here, Hendricks meant to emphasize the relation to a loathsome, idle, and filthy people with a people who were also dark. What is meant by dark in this passage? Regardless of the literal skin change that came upon them later, we shall see that this was not intended to be a source or an excuse for the Nephites to be racist against their brothers. But first, let us look at what 1 Nephi 12 says about dark. It does not say anything about a skin of blackness in this chapter whatsoever. It specifically says they became a “dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.”
Previous to Nephi’s usage of the word dark, to describe the state of his brothers, he used the word white to invoke the presence of God, and associated it with a process of purification (1 Nephi 12: 11):
And the angel said unto me: Look! And I looked, and beheld three generations pass away in righteousness; and their garments were white even like unto the Lamb of God. And the angel said unto me: These are made white in the blood of the Lamb, because of their faith in him.
Consider for a moment, the language color plays elsewhere in the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:18):
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
While the Lamanites ultimately chose the path of rebellion, the darkness here can mean only one thing, a people devoid of the Spirit and obedience to God. Additionally, this chapter also spoke on the “mist of darkness” as the “temptations of the devil.” To be sure, this chapter said nothing about skin color.
3) The pure in heart – one’s skin color is not a sign of inherent righteousness
The third verse of scripture comes from Jacob 3:8, again portrays whiteness as favorable before God. Hendricks fails to include verses one through nine in this section that explain the writer’s intent. In verse one, the pure in heart are addressed, and again in verse two. Wo unto them who are not pure in heart is subject of verse three, those who are cursed and shutout from the presence of God and sinfulness.
Here God commands the Nephites to “revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins.” That is a pretty clear command that we are to avoid racism.
In verse five, the Lord acknowledged that the Nephites, imperfect as they were, expressed hate towards their cursed brothers because of their filthiness and because of the curse that came upon their skins (more on the latter just below). In the context of this chapter, God chastened the Nephites for their wrongful practice of concubines. In other words, while a change came upon the Lamanites skins in order to distinguish them, they managed to show-up the more righteous Nephites in their practice of one man and one wife, as commanded at this time, not necessarily out of obedience (as they were in a rebellious state), but perhaps holding to the traditions they knew. The Nephites had neglected their wives and sought more on their own accord.
Verse six speaks highly of these darker skinned people, whom God grants mercy and future blessings. There is no doubt that God loves these descendants of the rebellious Laman. Further, the Lamanites exist in their condition and hatred toward the Nephites because they do not know any better than what has been passed down to them (v.7). Verse eight warns the Nephites of their sin and that they will potentially stand before God’s throne and appear less white than their cursed brothers. Is this language used as symbolism of not having their sins made white? This is probably the most troublesome verse of the group, but it is followed up with some clarification in verse nine.
The last verse, nine, is the real indicator of the intent of the Book of Mormon. Here God commands the Nephites to “revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins.” That is a pretty clear command that we are to avoid racism. In fact, God used this moment to remind the Nephites of their own filthiness.
4) Distinguishing the ‘curse’ from the ‘mark’
Finally, in Alma 3:6, Hendricks further continued his assault on the Book of Mormon and his attempt to connect the darker skin in with the curse. The scope of the Alama’s intent might be better understood reading the surrounding verses from 4-19. Verse four described the Amlicites, the followers of Amlici – who sought to be a king over the Nephites – actually marked themselves with red in their foreheads and joined with the Lamanites. In this way, the Amlicites “were distinguished from the Nephites.”
In verse six it mentions that the Lamanites have a darker skin or the mark that God set upon their fathers, which became a curse to them due to their rebellion. In verse seven, it clarifies that 1) they were cursed due to their choice and 2) that God placed a mark upon them. Why is separating the curse from the mark important? In verse eight through ten, it explains:
“This was done that their seed might be distinguished from the seed of their brethren, that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction.”
Any Nephites who were enticed to disbelieve God were led away and also received the mark. In essence, God used his creative processes in order that his believers (the Nephites) might distinguish from the nonbeliever (the Lamanites). Distinguishing is just that, associated with a mark of separation, but to revile or hate a brother simply because they appear different was not acceptable to God.
In conclusion, if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were indeed founded upon racism, and the Book of Mormon intended to emphasize whites as a superior race, it is strange that the Doctrine and Covenants, the scripture Joseph Smith began to receive and compile immediately following the publication of the Book of Mormon, says nothing on skin color. To the contrary, and in regards to slavery, the Doctrine and Covenants states “it is not right that any man should be in bondage to another.” (D&C Section 101:79).
The information found in the Book of Abraham, another revelation given to Joseph Smith that expounded on the life of the Biblical patriarch, resembles the issue in the Book of Mormon, in that a lineage was cursed and given an associated mark. The Book of Abraham essentially tied the Egyptian race to the descendants of Ham and a curse that pertained to the priesthood that was passed down through lineage, not skin color. In the Bible one can often find cases where promises and curses were passed down through lineage and their decision to choose the world over God. Contrary to what most understand, many darker skinned people received the priesthood in the LDS Church before 1978. The Church’s essay explaining the history of race relations within the Church point to other peoples with dark skin who did not have the priesthood withheld from them. It was believed that black Africans came from the lineage of Cain, and it was the lineage, not the skin color that disqualified them from the priesthood until that restriction was removed in 1978. Of course, the history is a little more complicated, but more information on that is best reserved for another time.
[Update: This idea of linking black Africans to the lineage of Cain, and later Ham, is disputed. May we also see that there is no such thing as black or white people, only shades of brown? See more from Marvin Perkins at the FAIRMormon 2016 conference discussion on race and the priesthood here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_UsOPZ_-uI. Also, see Brant Gardner’s excerpt on the Book of Mormon and the “skin of blackness.” In essence, Gardner makes the case that there was no skin pigmentation change and that the reference to “skin of blackness” was spiritual and paralleled the metaphors of Hebrew texts. This is helpful, especially if you look at the Book of Mormon as an ancient text, and not as a creation from the mind of someone living in the early U.S. where racial prejudices and white supremacy were the norm.]